As an exercise, I decided to do agency style standard coverage for the novel THE MARTIAN as if it had been assigned to me for work. I intentionally avoided all reviews of the book and movie so that I was going in cold, the same way I often am as a professional reader. It serves as an example of how my work corresponds with the finished movie.
After I finished my coverage, I saw the movie and wrote some comments on the adaptation. They are included below the coverage. What do you think of my take?
COVERAGE FOR THE MARTIAN
LOGLINE: After being left for dead on Mars, a resourceful astronaut uses every bit of his scientific knowhow to keep himself alive until he is rescued.
PREMISE: MARK WATNEY, the engineer and botanist on a NASA mission to Mars, finds himself alone after the rest of the crew has left in their escape craft during a dangerous storm. They assume he is dead. Watney has to figure out how to survive and let NASA know he is alive. He uses his skills to take advantage of every resource he has, and there are many close calls. Back on Earth, NASA, JPL, and others do everything they can to get to him before he runs out of food. Ultimately, the crew that inadvertently left him behind will be the ones to save him.
MARK WATNEY is the engineer and botanist on the Ares 3 Mars Space Mission -- one of the crew of six. The Ares Program is the first to send astronauts to Mars. Unlike the first two Ares missions though, this one isn’t successful. Watney explains in his log entry that six days into the mission, he was left for dead by the rest of the crew when a storm threatened to destroy their escape craft (MAV) which was their only way home. As the storm picked up, Watney was impaled by a broken antenna, and the others lost sight of him. Mission Commander MELISSA LEWIS (American, female) reluctantly agreed to leave without him, assuming he is dead. The crew didn’t know that his spacesuit (EVA) saved him when it sealed the puncture itself. Watney pulled out the antenna, sealed the hole, and returned to the Hab (Mars base camp). He now has no way to contact the crew or NASA to let them know he is alive. In the first of hundreds of log entries, Watney tells us: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
On his first day alone on Mars, Watney surveys his situation. He takes one of the two working rovers to check the communication dishes, but the dishes are in bad shape. The more immediate issue is figuring out how to stay alive. He knows the Ares 4 Mission will be coming in four years unless it is cancelled, so he uses both his botanist and engineering skills to figure out how he can stretch his food, water, and oxygen to survive that long. He becomes the first Martian farmer by using a small Earth soil sample, self-made fertilizer, and a few potatoes. He plans to grow enough eventually to supplement his supply of astronaut food. He figures out how much space he’ll need to grow enough to survive until Ares 4’s arrival. It includes most of the Hab structure, as well as some pop-up tents connected to it.
Watney also has to figure how to make water. He has a water reclaimer, but that isn’t enough. He comes up with a very dangerous plan to make water by combining carbon dioxide from the Hab’s “oxygenator” with hydrogen he will derive from containers filled with hydrazine (rocket fuel). The process to get the hydrogen involves creating a spark. He uses the extra EVA spacesuits to facilitate the process and hold the water. But then, because of a miscalculation, the process creates too much hydrogen which basically turns the Hab into a giant bomb. He has to take refuge in one of his rovers. He figures out how to decrease the nitrogen without destroying the important bacteria in the soil. But doing this involves a flame again, and when he does it, it causes a small explosion that blows him across the room. He is okay but shaken, and the Hab is a mess. He eventually figures out that the excess oxygen he was exhaling leaked from his mask and caused the explosion. Luckily the soil is okay, and he gets the Hab back in working order.
Back on Earth, everyone assumes Watney is dead, and he is honored by the world. His fellow crew members still have another ten months on the Hermes spacecraft before they get back to Earth. Director of Mars Operations at Johnson Space Center VENKAT KAPOOR (Indian, male) talks to the Head Administrator of NASA TEDDY SANDERS about getting satellite time to look at the Mars site, but Sanders is reluctant because the imagery will be available to the public. Kapoor convinces him that it would be good for the space program. MINDY PARK, who monitors the status of US satellites for NASA, sees evidence of activity at the Hab site. Sanders and Kapoor decide not to tell the Ares 3 crew because it would add more stress and distractions to their dangerous mission getting home. They do make plans with Head of NASA PR ANNIE MONTROSE to tell the press. It soon becomes a huge story, and NASA gets support from all over the world. NASA has no way to communicate with Watney. Kapoor also concludes that they will save Watney using the Ares 4 mission, and NASA works around the clock to figure out how to keep Mark alive for four years.
Watney figures how to “trick out” a rover for a long journey. He rigs solar panels on the roof for power. However, he figures out that the rover’s heater will eat up the power. He comes up with a dangerous plan to use a block of plutonium, or RTG, as the heat source for the rover. The plutonium was only intended to heat the Hab before the astronauts arrived. And after they got there, it was buried away from the base. Watney successfully recovers the plutonium and rigs it to the rover, and he figures out how to control the heat and keep himself from being zapped with radiation. He then attaches enough oxygen tanks for the twenty-day trip. He also figures out how to keep the potatoes alive while he is gone.
The NASA team sees what Watney is up to from satellite images, and they think he is going to the Ares 4 MAV. They keep the media abreast of all his activities. Kapoor puts Annie in charge of tracking Watney full-time. It’s a promotion of sorts. Now she is working with the big boys, including Director of JPL BRUCE NG and Flight Director for Ares 3 MITCH HENDERSON. Kapoor and Mitch disagree on whether to tell the Ares 3 crew that Mark is alive. Kapoor thinks it’s a bad idea, and he has final say. They watch Watney on the move, but instead of Ares 4, he is headed to Pathfinder, which has been inoperable since 1997. They suspect he can fix the communications. Watney uses Mars’ moon and the few landmarks on the open flatland to navigate his way. On his journey, he ponders his situation: “It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go. I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there!” It takes a few days, but he makes it to Pathfinder. He also finds the Sojourner which is a very small rover that he can use for parts.
Watney builds a ramp to get the Pathfinder on the roof of his rover and returns to the Hab, and he is relieved to be out of the cramped vehicle after three weeks. The potatoes are still thriving. He reburies the RTG and begins repairs on the Pathfinder. It takes a little work, but he gets its lander to work, which means it can send a message back to Earth. The Pathfinder has a camera so the team at JPL can see him; he can communicate visually but not verbally. The only way they can communicate with him is by pointing the camera at a “yes” or “no” sign Watney made. He also comes up with a system to write them messages using a computer code to represent letters. He explains to the team what happened and makes it clear that it was not the crew’s fault that he was left behind. Software engineer JACK TREVOR figures out how they can communicate with Watney by setting up a sort of “speak and spell” where the Pathfinder can talk to the Hab. They send Watney the instructions to set it up, and it works. It could be done quicker if it was relayed from Hermes, but Kapoor won’t allow it because the crew would learn that Watney is alive. Mitch, in contrast wants to tell them. He goes above Kapoor and gets permission to tell them from Teddy.
The crew is comprised of Commander Melissa Lewis, Pilot RICK MARTINEZ (American), BETH JOHANSSEN (American), chemist ALEX VOGEL (European), and DR. CHRIS BECK (American). We learn in flashback that when the storm hit, it was Lewis who went looking for Watney when he is separated from the group. She searched until they had to leave. So now, after four months on the Hermes, the crew finally gets the news from Mitch Henderson that Watney is alive, and he makes sure to tell them that Mark does not blame them for leaving him. Lewis is still upset: “I left him behind. In a barren, unreachable, godforsaken wasteland.”
Now communication between NASA and Watney is very easy, and the team is constantly wanting updates and giving him instructions. Mark writes in his log: “It’s awesome to have a bunch of dipshits on Earth telling me, a botanist, how to grow plants.” The “team of bureaucrats” back on Earth is second-guessing his actions. Despite their concerns, his potato crops are thriving. He also receives email from family and colleagues. He reassures Lewis through email that it is not her fault he was left behind.
There is an explosion in the Hab caused by a tear in the fabric of the airlock. It throws Watney across the airlock. He hits the door, and his face shield cracks. Luckily, the EVA suit protects him from severe injury. The airlock is leaking, and he knows he only has minutes to live. The Hab is detached from the airlock and is completely deflated. He finds the leak by burning his own hair with an electrical spark, creating smoke that shows the air moving. This is an extremely risky endeavor. Luckily he doesn’t go up in flames. He then seals the leak with some duct tape. To fix his faceplate, he has to cut off the arm of his EVA suit and use the fabric to patch the hole. It works, but it won’t last for long. He has to roll the airlock closer to the Hab so that he can run inside and retrieve a fully intact spacesuit. It works, and he then takes refuge in the rover nearby.
The Hab is a disaster, and the “potatoes are now extinct on Mars.” He also can’t communicate with NASA because the Hab was powering Pathfinder. He uses rocks to spell out “A-Okay” on the ground so that NASA can see it. He calculates that he will have enough food and rations to survive 600 sols (Mars days), but not enough to survive the 856 sols it will take for them to get to him. He repairs the Hab so he can contact NASA to tell them what happened. NASA figures out a way to send him food with a probe. Sanders convenes a meeting with all involved and decides to overlook some safety checks to get it to Watney on time. When the probe is finally launched, it crashes shortly after takeoff because of an “imbalance” and a defective bolt.
Director of the China National Space Administration GUO MING decides to contribute a powerful booster to NASA to help them get a probe to Mars; in exchange, he wants a Chinese astronaut on the next Ares mission. Kapoor doesn’t hesitate to agree. The new payload will still get there six weeks after Watney’s food runs out, so NASA has to come up with ways to stretch his food supply. Meanwhile, Astrodynamicist RICH PURNELL who calculates course corrections for NASA missions proposes to Kapoor that they could use the Hermes to rescue Watney based on the positioning of the planets. They could do it way before the Ares 4 mission. Kapoor holds a meeting to explain the options. Teddy thinks they should send the probe because it only risks one life. Mitch thinks the Hermes has a better chance at success. Ultimately, it is Teddy’s decision, and he decides to send the probe.
On Hermes, Vogel receives an encrypted email that contains the plans for the Hermes rescue mission to get Watney. The crew discusses the plan, and they decide to go against orders and head to Mars to save him. They are all eager to go. NASA watches helplessly as Hermes changes course for Mars. Teddy figures out that it is Mitch who sent the email, but there is nothing he can do about it because he doesn’t have any proof.
Watney gets the news and prepares for his journey to the Ares 4 MAV escape craft. He will have to use it to get to the Hermes as it flies by. The Hermes can’t land or orbit the planet, so he will only have one chance. The journey will take about 50 sols, which is twice the length of his last trip. He’ll also have to set up camp there and make modifications to the MAV for the mission. In total, it will take about 100 sols. Following NASA’s instructions, he begins work on the rover modifications, which involves lots of drilling. The drill inadvertently causes a short that blows out the communication with NASA.
Watney continues working on the rover. Because of technical issues, he has to figure out a way to heat the rover, and he decides to reuse the RTG. He goes to recover it, stating in his log: “Only an idiot would keep that thing near the Hab. So anyway, I brought it back to the Hab.” He spends days carrying rocks to create a ramp to load the rover, and he hurts his back in the process. He figures out how to heat water with the RTG and send it through piping in the rover to keep him warm on the trip. He even uses the hot water to take a bath for the first time! He loads the rover and the trailer while also stripping it of any unnecessary weight that would drain the batteries. Meanwhile, the docking mission with the supply probe and Hermes gets under way. Kapoor is in China for the launch of the probe, and he meets his counterpart Ming. Luckily, the probe docks without any problems.
Watney finishes the work on the rover and the trailer, including a pop-up tent attached to the rover that he can open up when he takes breaks so he will have a “bedroom.” He checks it for leaks and seals it so he can be inside it without his EVA suit. Finally, everything is loaded and ready to go. NASA can’t do anything but watch, and it is Mindy who has the full time responsibility of watching his every move and keeping the team updated.
Watney doesn’t know it, but there is a massive sandstorm moving across his path to Ares 4. NASA has spotted it, but there is nothing they can do to warn him. The diffused light from the fine dust in the air will cut down on the power to his solar panels. He won’t realize it until it’s too late; the rover will slow down, and he won’t make it to the Hermes in time. NASA can only hope he will figure out how to deal with it. Unaware, Watney carries on with his prep, doing a test drive in circles near the Hab to figure out the power usage and temperature. On sol 449, it is finally time to leave.
When Watney begins his journey, things go well. He has to stop every four days to reclaim the air. The terrain on this part of the trip is flat and wide open. He knows from the maps that it will get more rugged later on. To navigate, he makes his own sextant and comes up with a system to use the moon and landmarks. Unfortunately, he miscalculates and comes up on a big crater and doesn’t know which direction to go around it. He then notices his solar panels underperforming and the visibility changing, and he realizes what’s happening. He sends NASA a Morse code message: “DUST STORM. MAKING PLAN.” He writes in his log: “I think I can work this out.” He comes up with a way to travel around the storm and keep ahead of it; he figures out which way the storm is going by setting up solar panels and monitoring their energy levels.
After several days, Watney gets ahead of the storm. But then, while traversing a crater, he doesn’t see a dust covered slope, and the rover slides and rolls over. Luckily, the damage isn’t too bad, and he isn’t hurt. He recovers the broken solar panels and rights the rover by using a cable and a drill. He then has to dig a hole to get the trailer to roll back over. He does diagnostics on everything to make sure all is okay and has to repair the tow hook for the trailer. He sends another message: “ALL BETTER NOW.” Finally, he’s back moving after a 4 sol delay. He is now more cautious and drives slower through the soft dirt. He makes it completely out of the storm and away from the crater. Now he has plenty of sunlight, and he follows a beacon single until he reaches the Ares MAV 4. He couldn’t be more ecstatic – he does a dance in his space suit!
In order for the MAV to propel itself to reach the Hermes as it flies by, Bruce and the JPL team have concluded that much of the vehicle will have to be gutted and streamlined. Watney will be exposed to the space atmosphere with little more than a tarp covering him for aerodynamic purposes. It’s very risky, but it’s their only option. Watney is now able to communicate directly to NASA from the MAV, and they tell him the plan. His response: “You fucking kidding me?” But he takes it in stride and gets to work. He also has to convert water into fuel in a simple process converting it into hydrogen. Meanwhile, the Hermes crew goes through practice drills to get ready for the mission. The day finally arrives, and the whole world is watching. Mark writes in his last log entry: “I face the real possibility that I’ll die today.”
The Hermes approaches. The MAV takes off as Martinez pilots it remotely from the Hermes. Watney is basically a passenger at this point. The acceleration is very strong, and Watney quickly loses consciousness. The tarp tears away. At first, Martinez isn’t getting enough power. They resolve the issue only to discover that the MAV launch was off course, and the intercept velocity is not enough for them to reach Watney. The crew comes up with a plan to use their “attitude adjusters” to get to him. The problem is slowing down enough to catch him. They decide to intentionally breach the VAL, or “vehicle air lock,” to get them the added thrust boost they need to slow down. The rest of the craft will be secure, but to make it work is risky. Commander Lewis comes up with an idea to have Vogel, the chemist, make a bomb that will blow the door off. To install it, Beck and Vogel have to float down to the airlock in their spacesuits attached only by a tether. They set off the bomb. It blows the door off and slows the Hermes down. When they get in reach, Beck lowers himself to Watney. Vogel then slowly pulls them up to the Hermes by a tether.
In his first log entry from the Hermes, Watney muses that people are compelled by their nature to help others in trouble, and he is very fortunate. He writes: “This is the happiest day of my life.”
THE MARTIAN is a “five minutes into the future” realistic sci-fi novel with a relentless focus on technical detail. It offers a very intense firsthand look at what it would be like to be trapped alone on Mars. What it lacks in character development and dramatic complexity, it makes up for in its attention to one man’s desperate goal to survive using his scientific knowledge and imagination. As a believable story of survival, this stands out. Despite certain elements that are lacking, this novel has much to offer for an intense and exciting screen adaptation.
Our hero, Mark Watney, is pretty far down on the chain of command on this mission; but as a botanist and an engineer, it becomes clear that he is most equipped to survive on Mars by himself. He can fix anything and grow the food he will need to sustain himself, which is a complicated and delicate task. We learn about him almost solely through his log entries while he is trapped on Mars. His voice is strong and engaging, and it is clear that he is incredibly smart, persistent, and funny. As an astronaut, he is believable. He has the mind of an engineer -- explaining the process of staying alive with great technical and scientific detail, but in a way that most lay people will understand. Unfortunately, we get little backstory for characterization. He is from Chicago, single, and was a nerd growing up. Beyond that, there is little to go on. Of course, arguably his log entry might not be the place he’d go into a lot of personal detail. He does reveal moments of emotion, but not as much as probably an average person in his situation would. An adaptation might emphasize the emotional side of his experience more to make sure we see his humanity as much as his technical skill.
The rest of the characters are revealed in separate, third person P.O.V. chapters. We spend less time with them, but arguably we learn as much, if not more, about them as Watney. There is the team at NASA and JPL working to save Watney. The most endearing and sympathetic of those characters is Kapoor, the Director of Mars Operations. We also have the Mars crew who left Watney behind. Commander Lewis, the leader of the crew feels the most guilt. Both Kapoor and Lewis seem to carry the most weight of responsibility. They become the lead characters in their parts of the story and could be used in an adaptation to keep those sections focused. It is also noticeable that the cast is a diverse blend of ethnicities, and some key roles are female – most notably Commander Lewis. Through limited correspondence between Watney and his crewmates, we get a sense of the healthy dynamic between them, but little is fully developed or resolved. There is no conflict between them. The only very small conflicts are within the team at NASA. The characters could be more engaging and the story more dramatic if there were more interpersonal conflicts.
The book structure is framed mainly by Watney’s log entries. Interspersed between some of them are chapters with an omniscient narrator who gives perspective as to what is going on at NASA and on the Hermes spacecraft. They work as a nice counter-points to the scenes on Mars. Some of those chapters also describe Watney’s actions to give some distance from his point of view. In an adaptation, there could be more specific juxtaposing of scenes to create greater suspense and tension. The action and conflicts on Earth between members of the team working to save him could complement the scenes where Watney finds himself in peril. In most of the log entries, Watney is either telling us what he is going to do, or telling us what happened when he did it. In a film version, all of this could be conveyed as action, supplemented with key information from the log entries to make sure we understand what is going on technically, and to add voice to what are essentially long, dialogue free sections. There might also be some compelling cinematic/visual ways to show particular technical details.
This novel has great potential as an adaptation. In some ways, it is similar to CASTAWAY where one man has to survive alone in a remote place, but it benefits from the interconnecting subplots. It’s also easy to compare it to GRAVITY. An adaptation of THE MARTIAN could benefit from some of that film’s deeper character development to make Watney more sympathetic. Like in the other films, the actor playing Watney will have to be able to sustain the scenes by himself and make them dramatic and engaging. This would be a big budget movie, and it could benefit from the vision of an auteur director to make this something special.
NOTES FOR THE FILM ADAPTATION OF THE MARTIAN
The Martian is written by Andy Weir who is an engineer, and it shows. He’s created a novel that any hard-science and tech fan will love because of the attention to believable, science-based detail. However, as I discuss in my coverage of the book, this is often at the expense of good narrative pacing, drama, and character development. The screenwriter, Drew Goddard, addresses these issues in some dynamic ways in his adaptation. Some of his changes I also mention in my coverage. The most important culminate in the second half of the movie, and most significantly in the third act.
We don’t get much detail about Watney’s personal life in either the novel or movie. In the novel, he is an engineer and botanist, but in the movie he is apparently only a botanist, which is less believable considering all the technical things he has to do to survive. In both the novel and movie, Watney is likable and funny, but he’d be more sympathetic and interesting if we knew more about his personal life, and if he was dealing with some inner turmoil. Consider how this works for Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity. There is nothing that profound or emotionally complex in this movie. Watney’s story in the book and the movie is solely one of simple survival and rescue.
The most significant character change from book to film, in my opinion, happens with Commander Lewis. As I mention in my comments for the book, I believe she is one of the key emotional centers of the book, and the screenwriter does too, because he uses her both for the film’s emotional and structural frame. The screenwriter emphasizes Lewis’ feelings of guilt, partly by starting the movie during the storm when the entire crew is trying to escape and she is the one in charge. In contrast, the story in the novel begins with Watney after he has been left behind, and we don’t get the details about the storm until later in a flashback. In the film, both Lewis and Watney become more active players in their own destiny in the third act. Her place in the climactic scene affirms her importance in the story.
In order to create the film’s dramatic third act, the screenwriter downplays the significance of two major parts of the book and changes some details in the rescue. In the book, the journeys to the Explorer and then to the MAV for his rescue dominate. In the film, the trip to the MAV becomes only a simple interlude before the third act rescue. In the book, the rescue is pretty anti-climactic because Watney’s role in it is passive. In contrast, in the movie Watney punctures his own suit to propel himself towards the Hermes -- something dismissed in the book as too dangerous. Also, Lewis takes it upon herself to suit up and try to save Watney. This allows her to redeem herself and complete her character arc. It also serves as a bookend structurally -- the movie basically begins and ends with her. Watney and Lewis both take a major risk, which connects them in a way. Ultimately it is Watney’s foot getting caught in a tether that saves him. After all of that, it’s an accident that saves him.
Some may say that the film differs too greatly from the book because it doesn’t focus on the same level of detail, and it dumbs things down for an impatient movie viewer. But as they say, people don’t go to movies to think. They go to feel something. I think that is what the screenwriter is going for here, with limited success. He had to rework the third act, and he had to keep a balance between Watney’s endeavors on Mars and the teams’ efforts to bring him home, leaving less time and space for substantial character development. Lewis’ emphasis helps some, although the rescue ends up being technically less believable and less dependent on execution and skill, and more on luck. I think what makes the book unique and special is the level of detail that the author uses. The movie can’t recreate that the same way; it ends up being a pretty conventional film.